The United Nations has passed a resolution to ban drift-net fishing in the South Pacific by 1991, with a global ban to follow in 1992. The UN ban is a compromise. In July, South Pacific nations called for an immediate halt to drift netting. Regional fishery scientists claimed the stocks of albacore tuna - crucial to small island economies - could be wiped out in two years if Taiwanese and Japanese boats continued drift netting at the same rate.

Japan and Taiwan, citing their own need for fish, claimed several years of research was needed before it could support a ban.

But that position met with harsh criticism from the region. In November, Japan said it was reducing its South Pacific drift-net fleet from 60 to 20 vessels. During UN talks in December, Japanese diplomats agreed to accept a moratorium.

Taiwan, which had 130 vessels in the region last year, is not a UN member. But it has indicated it may comply with the agreement.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer called Japan's agreement ``a really important step forward.

``This is a significant achievement for South Pacific micro-states,'' says one Australian official. But the official warned it is ``too early for anti-drift netters to celebrate because it's not clear how the Japanese are going to interpret the agreement.''

The UN resolution was passed Dec. 22. It leaves open the possibility of lifting the ban if ``effective conservation and management measures be taken.''

Drift-net fishing involves laying strings of nets 30 feet deep and up to 30 mile wide. The massive nets are left to drift overnight and then retrieved. About 1,000 Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Korean fishing boats have used the nets, ostensibly, to catch squid in the North Pacific.

But the small-mesh nylon nets snare, and often kill, a wide range of marine life, including dolphins, sea birds, whales, and turtles.

Environmental organizations have condemned the practice, calling drift nets ``walls of death.''

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